The Department for Mutated Persons – Chapter 1

The stone edifice was impeccably clean, white granite facing out at the black asphalt of an empty city street. The block was government zoned, and that meant police enforcement at every corner.
Alan was uneasily standing across the road with a bag slung over his slouching left shoulder. His amber eyes stared up at the light-blotting structure, shadow reaching out toward him.
“You lost?”

A voice broke Alan’s concentration. He looked to his left and saw a large man in military gear staring back intensely. His eyes were covered with sunglasses with a mask covering his mouth.
“Do you have papers?” The man pressed, a condescending finger pointing sharply at Alan.
Alan pulled his bag up to his hip nervously and pulled a crinkled red slip of paper from its container. The man snatched the paper from Alan’s hand, his head bending down to acknowledge he was reading Alan’s credentials.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know I couldn’t…”
The man shoved the paper back in Alan’s chest and pointed across the street.
“Move along, freak.”
Alan’s face tensed at the word.
“Did you hear me? Move along. Don’t make me call it in.”
Alan nodded nervously and set a foot onto the asphalt to show the officer he was en route. The man turned away and began walking back down the sidewalk towards another police officer. Alan took quick short steps all the way across the street and up to the white government office building.
The words were etched perfectly into the stone face: The United States Department for Mutated Persons, precinct 305. Not a scrap of trash around the entrance. Nobody for miles, aside from law enforcement. Alan mused that this was a small reminder of the times they were living in. It was a distinct contrast from what his parents used to talk about, the stories they painted, and the people they were. But that was then and this was now.
Alan pushed his way through the revolving doorway of the 305 building, and was met with a cold, high-ceilinged room with granite floor tiles and marble columns. At the end of the long room stood a granite lobby desk with a woman sitting behind it, typing and answering the entryway phone. She did not look up when she entered, nor did she give any indication that she had even remotely recognized his presence in the empty room.
Alan cleared his throat. The woman looked up, her eyes annoyed and bored. She looked back down at her computer screen, without regard for Alan once again. Alan walked up to the desk and slipped his bag onto the floor.
“Please do not leave your things on the floor,” the woman sighed. Alan reluctantly pulled the bag back up over his shoulder. “Papers.”
Alan held out his red slip of paper, and the woman took it without looking at him.
“I wasn’t sure if I should call ahead, but obviously you’ve got a lot of people today,” Alan joked hesitantly, looking around at the empty room. The woman didn’t look up, and instead ran a black pen across the red paper in a rote, measured movement she’d likely done thousands of times before.
“Take this in, and Secretary Hollins will be with you shortly, Mr. Mitchell.”
Alan nodded silently; the woman never made eye contact again and thus did not acknowledge his nonverbal. “Move along.”
The woman’s desk phone rang again – one ring – and she picked it up almost instantly. Alan walked past her to the glazed door behind the desk, and entered into the office of Secretary Roger Hollins. Hollins was standing behind a giant oak desk, a tiny American flag nestled inside a coffee cup on top.
“Let’s see the paper, son,” Hollins barked, his hand out in waiting. Alan handed over the red slip and sat down. “That won’t be necessary.”
Alan stood back up awkwardly, his bag falling down into the seat below.
“Don’t scuff the leather, son.”
Alan pulled the backpack to his shoulder again, the skin feeling raw beneath his worn cotton hooded sweatshirt. Hollins, a tall blocky man with gray hair and large, blunt nose, stared at Alan’s red paper through cheater eyeglasses. He groaned, his lips pursing and parting as he read the slip to himself. He looked up from the paper at the skinny boy, no older than seventeen years, staring awkwardly at the floor.
“Magnetism, huh? Alright, then,” Hollins sighed and pressed the intercom button on his desk phone, “Miss Doland, please call the transport. We’ll be sending Mr. Mitchell to the 308.”
“Yes, sir.”
The phone hung up, and Hollins pulled his finger back. He took out a black pen from his coffee cup, shaking the flag in the process. He made a few marks, and then signed the bottom half.
“You will exit this building, give this paper to the driver outside, and find your quarters at the 308 station house. They will be expecting you in one hour, so don’t think you can lag behind on this. Dismissed.”
Hollins handed Alan the red paper back, and pointed to the door. Alan walked out into the empty room, where Miss Doland was still busily talking on the phone while simultaneously doing her clerical work. Alan looked down at the paper:
Confirmed mutation. Designated for work. 308.
Hollins’s signature was scrawled in the bottom right corner, a sloppy cursive that Alan only guessed was his name. Alan wondered why people wrote their names in such a haphazard, rushed manner.
“Please wait outside,” Miss Doland said in a cold, threatening manner, her arm outstretched and pointing toward the exit.
Alan put his head down and walked outside, where a white transit van was now waiting for him. The streets were still empty aside from the van, and the law enforcement agents walking back and forth in precise formation. Alan opened the back passenger door and stepped into the pristine van.
“Alan Mitchell?” a screen lit up, a digital flutter in its voice. The computer prompt popped up on the panel that would’ve been the driver’s headrest. The van was empty, a self-driving model implemented by the government to transport the mutated so as to encourage class distinction. The prompt displayed Alan’s full name, a question mark, with a yes or no option below. Alan pressed his finger to the glass.
“Thank you. Setting destination: work precinct, designation 308. Please buckle your seatbelt.”
Alan lifted his hand, and watched as the metal seat buckle floated up in the air around his lap. Using his powers in a non-government sanctioned fashion felt like one last act of defiance. The buckle rolled over itself, resisting Alan’s palm as he moved it back and forth in midair.
“Please fasten your seatbelt now.”
The voice was monotone, but to Alan it felt authoritative and angry. Alan snapped out of his trance and put the belt down with his hands. He shoved his bag off to the other seat, and watched the windows around him self tint. People on the streets wouldn’t even know it was him. They wouldn’t know where he was going, what he was doing. He was redacted. Soon, his own parents would cease to remember the little boy who had broken the backyard slide by popping all of the screws out at once. That boy was gone anyway. Now, the man would be gone too. And nobody cared.

The Department for Mutated Persons – Chapter 2

“Welcome to Work Precinct 308,” the robotic voice chimed from the self-driving car’s dashboard.
The car stopped softly, the windows slowly transitioned from opaque to transparent, and Alan saw his new home for the foreseeable future. It was an old apartment complex, mostly concrete with soft edges, with blacked out windows and strong metal doors with bars. The front office was designed like a hotel with an awning resting just over the car Alan was in.
“Please exit the vehicle.”
The door opened without Alan’s effort. Alan grabbed his bag and stepped out into the dry air. The front office of the complex was the only thing not surrounded by a concrete wall. It was the only entrance and exit for the entire campus. The front desk’s windows were tinted, but Alan could make out that someone was coming toward the front door.
The door swung open, and a short, stocky man came out with a clipboard and a wicked mustache. He looked down at his brown clipboard, his facial hair wagging back and forth.
“Alan Mitchell?”
“That’s what they call me,” Alan joked. The man looked up from his clipboard with deathly annoyance. He made a check mark on the paper, and pointed at Alan’s bag.
“Bring your things in here,” the man said gruffly, and then stomped back into the front office lobby.
The room was unadorned, save for a lone plant. The white tiled floor was scuffed and the grout was filled with dirt in aging cracks. A small desk was at the back wall, a stack of papers sloppily hanging off the edge facing Alan. The papers were a mixture of white forms and red slips.
“My name is Randall Finch. People around here just call me Finch. I don’t care what you call me, just follow the rules. Don’t leave the building without telling me, and you’ll be fine. Don’t invite people to the building, and you’ll be fine. Don’t tell people on the outside where you live, and you’ll be fine. Don’t bring liquor or drugs into the building, and you’ll be fine. Don’t leave your room after lights out, and you’ll be fine. Give me your red slip, and let’s get this over with.”
Alan held out the paper and Finch tore it out of his hands. Finch looked over the red paper, made some notes then began filling out the paperwork on his clipboard with the red slip guiding him. His pen marks were hard and swift, much like the rest of his actions. He didn’t have time for the new guy’s jokes. Jokes got people in trouble. Then they got shipped out to the processing center and had to deal with the board of directors. Finch, whether he wanted to admit it or not, did care about the people brought into his unit, and he didn’t desire to see them go before the board. He wouldn’t wish that on his worst enemy.
Alan noticed beyond the desk was the door that led out into the courtyard of the complex. There were people hanging out in the green patch of land, the only green patch Alan could remember seeing in his journey to his new home. A few palm trees surrounded a circular grass area with an empty swimming pool. But Alan didn’t realize he was staring at a group of guys who were sitting in plastic lawn chairs in the courtyard, but they had noticed. The men looked at each other and got up from there seats, pushing their way into the lobby.
“Hey, baby bird, who’s the new guy?” the apparent leader of the group asked.
“Baby bird?” Alan said, setting a sideways glance at Finch. Finch rolled his eyes.
“Shut up, new guy. I’m talking to baby bird.”
Finch clenched his teeth and pointed at his clipboard, “I don’t have time for this, Castor. I need to input him in the system so I can clock out. Why don’t you take your entourage back to the courtyard.”
Castor didn’t like that. He grabbed Finch by the arm, Castor’s hand turning red hot. Finch winced, his arm heating up and blistering.
“Don’t you ever tell me what to do,” Castor said angrily. Finch struggled, but Castor wrenched Finch’s arm back and tightened his burning grip. “You normies just think you’re better than us. I don’t like the way you look down on me.”
“Castor, let him go.”
Castor looked at the back wall where a tall, muscular man was standing in the courtyard doorway. Alan released his fist, and the desk gently came back down onto the floor without everyone noticing. Everyone, except for Marshall, the man in the doorway. He was subtly looking at the desk, when Castor finally let Finch go. Alan looked at Finch’s arm, red finger marks burned into his flesh. Finch picked up his clipboard off the ground and started making notes.
“That’s another strike for you, Castor. One more, and you’ll have to be processed.”
“Don’t test me, baby bird,” Castor sneered, and he nodded to his guys. “I’ll catch you later, newbie.”
Marshall watched, unmoving, as Castor and his friends went back out into the courtyard. Once they were outside, Marshall relaxed his posture and turned his attention to Alan, who was anxiously standing in the middle of the room.
“You’ll have to forgive Castor, kid. He wasn’t blessed with an abundance of intelligence. You okay, Finch?”
Finch nodded, exhaling a breath of relief. “I’m fine. But Castor? Castor’s on his last warning. And we know what comes after that.”
“Let me worry about Castor,” Marshall said, his eyes staring back at the courtyard. “So who’s the new kid?”
“Alan Mitchell. Just got shipped here from…” Finch looked down at his paperwork.
“The 305 I guess,” Alan replied. Finch looked up from his clipboard.
“Yeah… the 305,” Finch said with a look of displeasure on his face. “Anyway, I’m going to file this paperwork. Alan’s in room 224b. Can you show him around, Marshall?”
Marshall looked at Alan, sizing him up with a discerning eye. “Sure thing, Finch. Come on, kid. Let’s see if we can get you into some trouble.”
“No trouble,” Finch chided as Marshall and Mitchell walked through to the courtyard, where Castor was still sulking. Marshall put a hand on Alan’s shoulder and pointed around the area. It was more a sign to Castor that Marshall was looking out for the kid than a genuine act of friendship, but Alan appreciated it anyway.
“The cafeteria is down at the end of the courtyard here. Mostly just the old high school stuff. Pizza day on Friday, so that doesn’t completely suck. We go grocery shopping in groups on Wednesday, so you’ll want to use your credits to get snacks then. They’ll bring you soap and toothpaste and that kind of stuff, so don’t waste your credits on it in the store. Your room is on the second floor.”
Marshall ushered Alan up a metal staircase blasted with white paint, chips of it flaking in well-trafficked areas. They finally got to his room, and Marshall showed him in. The room was a single bed, wrapped in white sheets with brown carpeting on the floor and a small bathroom. It was about as dingy a hotel room as Alan could remember seeing before. He looked back at the front door.
“No lock?” Alan asked.
“Nope. Nobody has locks. It seems kinda pointless since we’re not allowed to leave and there’s cameras all over the place. If someone steals your stuff just let me know. We tend to take care of matters on our own. Keeps the board out of it.”
“I heard Finch mention them earlier. They don’t sound great.”
Marshall stopped for a moment, looking out the curtain draped window of the room. Castor’s friends had left and they had been replaced with a group talking down at the empty swimming pool, their legs dangling over the edge. Marshall seemed to be thinking about something far off.
“No. They aren’t ‘great.’ If you see the board, then you’re screwed. So don’t get yourself into trouble. Anything else?”
Marshall asked the question more for himself, his eyes pensively looking to the popcorn ceiling trying to muster another thought. He snapped his fingers and pointed at Alan, a big grin on his face.
“Marshall and Mitchell. That’s us, kid. Anyway, that was the whole show. You need anything from me?”
Alan shook his head, so Marshall went for the exit.
“Wait. What do we do here?” Alan asked. No one had ever told him. Since the received his red slip, no one had told him what exactly he was in for. Marshall turned around, his face showing a disappointed frown.
“It’s a work camp, kid. We do what they tell us to do.”
Marshall’s voice was compassionate for Alan, and sad for all the people working in the 308. It was a work camp; there wasn’t more to it than that.
“Dinner’s at 6. Don’t be late. If you can believe it, the food gets worse.”

The Department for Mutated Person – Chapter 3

“Get up, Mr. Mitchell!” Finch’s voice rang like a morning bell inside Alan’s brain. He had hardly slept at all the first night, and now it was still dark and Finch was shouting for him to meet the new day. “Bus comes in twenty minutes, and you’re going to be on it whether you like it or not.”
Alan rubbed his eyes, and looked around at his new home. Cracked drywall. Patchy carpet. Alan scrambled his hair, and got up out of bed.
“That’s the spirit. We’re meeting down in the lobby when you’re dressed.”
“What should I wear?” Alan asked.
Finch exhaled an exasperated breath and checked Alan’s name off the list. He pointed with his thumb at the doorway.
“Just wear what you got, kid. We’ll have uniforms at the site.”
The lobby was filled with, presumably, the rest of the occupants of the complex. There were plenty of new faces that Alan couldn’t place. He recognized a few people from the swimming pool, and Castor was still making unfriendly glares at him from the front entrance. Finally, Alan made eye contact with Marshall, who was socializing with a group of people around Finch’s desk. Marshall waved Alan over to their group, a handful who seemed friendly enough.
“Hey Alan, meet the guys,” Marshall shouted with a smile. Alan closed the distance between them and looked around at this new group of neighbors.
“Guys?” a girl in the group chided.
Marshall acknowledged her, “People? Persons? Humans? Mutants? You get what I’m saying, Athena.”
Athena smirked. Alan gathered that their dynamic was simple: Athena gave Marshall a hard time, and Marshall laughed it off. Maybe he could fit into it.
“Or freaks. Everybody seems to like that one,” Alan joked. The group didn’t seem very receptive to the levity.
“Yeah, maybe not bring that one up next time, kid,” Marshall said under his breath, and then addressed the group, “Anyway, you guys ready for another day at the construction site? I hear we’re building the frame today.”
The rest of the group didn’t seem as enthusiastic as Marshall. Some rolled their eyes, and the kind ones just nodded halfheartedly. Nevertheless, Marshall was the clear leader of the group and the positive light in the dreary gray.
“Alright, bus is here. Everybody out,” Finch shouted at the front door, “‘Swear the only peace and quiet I get is when you all leave.”
The bus was an old commuter transport that had been refitted for the specific task of shipping work camps to job sites. The windows were tinted jet black, and the driver seat was taken out in favor of a self-driving computer. The seats were upholstered in old colorful patterns, splashes of color in a gray, concrete world.
The ride was a twenty minute trek of several city blocks. Alan could see people passing on the sidewalks; people who couldn’t see him or anyone else in the bus. They were invisible, migrant workers etching out their day apart from the rest of the world. Not one person on the outside made eye contact with the bus as it traveled to the work site. Not one made notice of the people working to build their streets, office buildings. They all just carried on, forcefully unaware that there was second set of citizen underneath the veneer.
Alan was woken from his thoughtful trance by the bus brakes screeching and hissing. The vehicle halted in front of a large fenced-off lot with large yellow “under construction” signs.
“Please exit the vehicle,” the bus computer chimed, and everybody unloaded in a mad rush.
The chainlink gate opened and several supervisors walked forward, hard hats and glaring faces ready for their rebellious employees. Alan found himself funneled into the construction site, a concrete slab filled with metal beams, rebar, and a small collection of construction tools. A food truck stood off to the side where Alan presumed they would be getting their meals during the work day. Alan noticed Castor, forever disgruntled, push his way through to the food truck. He presumed Castor was famished after a long night of bullying, but then Castor got into the truck.
“Wait, Castor’s the cook?” Alan asked, jokingly.
“Government employment at its finest,” Marshall replied.
“What’s wrong with being the cook?” Athena retorted, pushing her way out of the work line, “Some of us find serenity in eggs and bacon.”
“Won’t argue with that,” Marshall shouted his reply as Athena hopped up into the truck with surly Castor.
Marshall and Alan were carried through the stream of people to the front of the convergence. A couple of supervisors were standing up on a concrete foundation, with clipboards and a single shared bullhorn.
“Okay!” a supervisor shouted over the bullhorn, the sound bouncing around the open lot. The supervisor waited for the clamor to die down, then his partner began again. “Okay, today we will be placing beams around the foundation. Assignments will be handed out as such: Magnets will move beams. Eyes will weld pieces together. Muscle will be here for safety. If you don’t fit in these categories you are a floater, and we will find you something to do. Don’t idle. Don’t cause trouble, and we’ll get out to lunch on time. Troublemakers will be docked points. Extreme violators will be given a strike. A member of the board’s investigation unit is on-site for those of you are already on your second strike. Be careful, keep calm, and we will make this a great work day. Thank you.”
The other supervisor began barking names and designations. Most of the crowd seemed to be ignoring him. This wasn’t their first day, unlike Alan.
“A. Mitchell, Magnet Crew!”
Marshall put a hand on Alan’s shoulder and pointed him over to a large trailer where the crowd was grabbing equipment. “Come on, A. Mitchell. We’ve got work to do. Grab your hard hat and orange vest. Safety first,” Marshall instructed sarcastically. “This goes on your head.”
Marshall gingerly dropped the hard hat on Alan’s head, the orange plastic shine covering up his eyes.
“You may need to adjust it.”
“Gee, thanks for the pointer,” Alan replied sardonically, and he shifted the hat on his head so he could see again. Marshall put on his yellow vest, denoting his status as an Eye. These individuals emitted concentrated light out of their eyes; light so powerful that it could melt metals and weld them together if carefully controlled. Another orange vest came over to Alan. His name tag: Nick.
“Hey, Nick.”
Nick looked down at his name tag with an unamused frown on his face, “Yeah, ok… We’re supposed to move the beams into place. I’ll show you where to go. Since you’re new, you’ll be a support staff for the movers right now. When you get the hang of moving beams, we’ll talk about bigger responsibilities.”
Alan nodded apathetically, and Nick showed him over to their spot. He wasn’t really interested in more responsibility. What did he have to look forward to: Head serf? No, he was resigned to do his time. It was what he deserved. But he didn’t have to enjoy it, and he certainly didn’t have to be invested in the system that was using him for labor.
Nick showed Alan over to a squared off area, lined with dashed yellow markings. A supervisor stood in the center and motioned to the metal beams stacked next to them. Nick gave Alan a signal, and pointed at the beams. Nick lifted his hand into the air, and one of the beams creaked and groaned as it lifted off the rest of the stack.
“You try to get your field underneath the beam,” Nick shouted over the noise that was building all around them as other Magnets began moving pylons with their magnetic abilities. “The foreman will show you placement, and you have to get it close enough for Muscle group to slide it into position.”
Nick shifted his weight to the left, and Alan watched the beam float in a direct, efficient manner across the lot and onto the concrete foundation the supervisors had been standing on before. Nick then lowered his right arm so that his hands were one on top of the other. The beam then rotated vertically, and Nick slid his arms – and the beam – across the concrete foundation; then a Muscle worker grabbed it with gloved hands and pushed the beam down into holes that were designated for the metal supports.
“See? Easy peasy,” Nick exhaled. There was always a certain level of mental exhaustion involved with moving such large objects.
Alan looked back at the beam and saw Marshall’s eyes glow white-hot, and a spark ignited at the beam’s bottom section, welding it to the foundation’s support structure. Everybody had a job – even Castor, who was sulkily cooking pots with his hands – and nobody seemed to care much about who was telling them what to do. Alan figured it couldn’t hurt to go with the flow, and let his co-workers lead the way. If people who had been doing this, seemingly for years, then he certainly could swallow his pride and be part of the system too. Even if he was building the next precinct’s government inspection office.
“Okay, Alan, now I’m going to lift a beam and I want you to do the rotation for me. It helps for the higher elevation,” Nick explained, almost like Alan was a child. Alan rolled his eyes and nodded back.
The beam screeched across the stack and came up over their heads. Alan lifted his hands and rotated them like Nick had done before. The beam struggled as it rotated.
“I can take it,” Alan shouted back to Nick.
“You’re not ready, kid,” Nick yelled back over the din of construction chatter.
Alan pushed on Nick’s field, resting control of it from Nick. Nick could tell what was happening, and pushed back. The beam groaned as two forces pushed on it from different angles.
“Knock it off, kid!”
“I can do it, Nick,” Alan shouted back.
The beam couldn’t handle the two forces and as the fields changed angles, the beam spun out of control. Alan watched as the beam fell toward them. Alan and Nick fell to the floor as the support beam came down on top of them. Alan closed his eyes, waiting for the crunch of bones and for his brains to spill out on the ground. But the crunch never came. Alan opened his eyes. Marshall was standing over him; his arms hoisted upward, beam in hand. Marshall was a rare mutation. Alan had heard rumors of multi-mutations, but he’d never met one before.
“Kid, you wanna move.”
Alan slid backward away from the beam’s shadow, and Marshall settled the beam back onto the ground.
“What is wrong with you, kid? I told you to let me handle it. You had one simple job, and you couldn’t even do that,” Nick was yelling in the silence of the moment. Everyone had stopped working for a brief moment to witness the accident, and the silence was now filled with Nick’s whining.
“I didn’t mean to do it. You could’ve just let me handle it instead of trying to take control back,” Alan justified.
Nick’s nostrils flared, and an errant metal rod flew toward Alan’s head. A hand jutted out and caught the rebar before it could impale Alan. Marshall held the rod as it strained to reach Alan. Marshall looked sideways at Nick, his eyes glowing.
“You don’t want to do this, Nick.”
The supervisors were chattering through walkie talkies, and a man clad in black, including black helmet, entered from the gate entrance. His sunglasses gave no hint to his purpose, but Alan could see that he was looking their way. Nick didn’t see the man coming towards them. He was too busy thinking about what it would be like to ram a bar through Alan’s cranium.
“Stand down, Magnet,” the man said in a firm tone.
Nick finally realized he had an audience, but it was too late. Marshall bent the metal bar and began advocating.
“Everything’s fine here, officer. Just a little disagreement. Nick is very sorry, and this will never happen again,” Marshall said with confidence. “We’re sorry to bother you.”
The man didn’t even look at Marshall. He didn’t know the situation, and he didn’t care really. There was a zero tolerance policy for fighting on job sites.
“Nicholas Bradford, you are cited one strike for insubordinate behavior and attempted assault. This is your third strike. Come peacefully,” the man stated in a rote, memorized monotone.
“It wasn’t my fault. The kid…,” Nick whined. The agent lifted his forearm, his fist balled in a fiercely tight grip, and Nick found himself floating in a mad rush toward the officer. It was an ability Alan had never seen before. It wasn’t magnetism or strength, but something much scarier to Alan. Foreign and intimidating were the thoughts crossing Alan’s mind. He could feel a cold sweat envelop his skin. The agent pulled specialized handcuffs from his vest and cuffed Nick, arms uncontrollably locked to his back. A black sack was pulled over Nick’s face, and the agent pointed to Alan among the crowd.
“Alan Mitchell, you are cited one strike for insubordinate behavior. This is your first strike. Cease further insubordinate actions or you will be cited again,” the agent rattled off the sentencing efficiently and without emotion. “Please return to your work.”
The agent walked out of the work camp in silence. A woman was standing at the front entrance, and, as the gate shut, a piercing blue light blinded the crowd for a brief moment. Then they were gone, the work crew left only to guess where they had vanished. Marshall looked back at Alan, a confusing mixture of disappointment, anger, and compassion lining the wrinkles in his face.
“I’m sorry, Marshall, I didn’t know…”
“It happens, kid. Not usually on the first day, but it happens,” Marshall sighed, and he picked up Alan’s hard hat off the dusty ground, and then placed it back on his head.
Alan looked over and saw Athena standing outside the truck, her hand gripping the back door. She had an overwhelmed look on her face; but when she realized Alan was staring at her, she looked away and went back to work. The rest of the camp went back to their work as well, and, after a brief scolding from his supervisor, Alan went back to work with his group. But all Alan could think about was Nick Bradford, his five-minute-boss, and the inevitable appointment Nick had with the Board. And he felt guilty.

The Department for Mutated Persons – Chapter 4

Alan didn’t eat well at dinner that night. He almost forgot to eat at all. Arriving late, he got the bottom of the barrel so it wasn’t exactly hard to lackadaisically poke at his food. Alan had zoned out to such an extent that he didn’t notice when Marshall sat down next to him with Athena.
“Hey, kid. I told you not to be later,” Marshall quipped, looking down at Alan’s slop.
“Huh?” Alan looked up as if snapped out of his hypnosis. Athena rolled her eyes in a light, playful manner and went back to eating her pudding. “I was just…”
“I remember my first day too,” Marshall joked and slapped Alan on the back, a bit too hard for him. Alan coughed a bit and went back to poking at his food. “It gets better. Well, it gets easier.”
“It doesn’t,” Athena retorted, her eyes on her pudding. “But you can trick yourself for long enough.”
“Thanks,” Alan replied sarcastically.
“I’m just being honest, Alan. This place doesn’t change. You change. We all change. Enough to get through another day. Sometimes that’s enough.”
“Athena,” Marshall said, his voice sounding paternal.
“Marshall, stop patronizing him. He knows what situation we’re in. To say otherwise is to treat him like a kid, and he’s not. None of us are anymore. We don’t have that luxury. And don’t tell me I’m being pessimistic.”
“Get out of my head, Athena,” Marshall replied in a calm, but firm manner.
“I’m not in your head, Marshall. We agreed I wouldn’t do that to you. But I’ve known you long enough to know when we’re in for another Marshall sunshine speech, and I’m not having it today. Nick was an idiot, but he was our idiot. And I know, Alan didn’t mean to get him in trouble, but he did.”
She was a reader. Alan didn’t think to ask before, but now it was right in front of him. Athena could read people’s minds. Could she read his mind too?
“Only what’s on the surface,” Athena replied out loud to Alan’s thought, “But I try not to do it. It doesn’t seem polite.”
“Athena,” Marshall said, his voice repentant. Athena pushed herself away from the table.
“Don’t worry about it, Marshall. I wasn’t that hungry. I’m going to take a walk.”
Athena left Alan and Marshall alone at the cafeteria table.
“That would’ve been good to know about Athena,” Alan lectured Marshall. “I mean what if…”
“Kid… Alan, if Athena wanted to know something about you, she’d figure out how to get it. But she doesn’t care. So don’t worry about it. I would’ve told you if it had crossed my mind. Enjoy your dinner.”
Marshall got up and left the cafeteria, leaving Alan alone to ponder his slop.


After dinner, Alan took a walk around the complex, seeing how people kept their rooms. Nothing seemed different from his own stark room. A few people had colorful curtains instead of the drab gray ones that were in his room, but everything else seemed the same. He saw a few guys standing around in one of the doorways, mostly a few guys from the Magnets group. They gave Alan rude glares, and he guessed they had been friends with Nick. They dispersed and Alan saw that it had been Nick’s room they were standing around.
Alan stood in front of Nick’s room, somehow hoping he would just appear in the doorway and punch Alan’s lights out. But the doorway was empty. The door was opened, and the room had been stripped of any sense of living. The bathroom light was on, and all Alan could see was a mattress without its sheets. It was as naked as his heart felt. Back home when he ran his mouth or took a joke too far, he’d get popped in the face and that would be it. Now, Alan was responsible for a man being locked up. Well, more locked up than he already was.
Alan felt like he was fourteen again, waiting for his parents to come home from a date. But this time they weren’t coming home. In fact, they weren’t coming back, and they had abandoned Alan in this purgatory between the real world and death.
Alan didn’t realize he had garnered Marshall’s attention, who was walking back to his room that evening. Marshall could tell something was bothering Alan, and he knew what it was.
“Kid, if you didn’t show up to work today. Heck, if you never showed up to our camp ever, someone would’ve set Nick off; and he’d be seeing the Board anyway. Did you stop to wonder how he got the first two strikes? Sometimes you can’t stop people from doing what they want to do, and sometimes what they want to do is be self-righteous, or angry, or in charge. And you can’t fix people if they don’t want to be fixed. Nick Bradford had his issues long before you messed with his beam.
“Don’t think about how you can control his situation. You don’t owe him the patience. I can’t count how many times I tried to help Nick; kept him from getting caught, tried to work with him on his temper. He never wanted to get right. He got comfortable being a jerk, and he didn’t feel like changing. Now, I don’t know where he’s gone, but if they just moved him to a new camp; it’ll be the same there. If he’s not… well, if he’s not, then that’s on him. He knows the world we live in. You didn’t send Nick away, kid. That’s just how things are here, and Nick knew that already, and he still chose his path. Now, go to bed before lights out. You already have one strike.”

The Department for Mutated Persons – Chapter 5

“Get up, Mr. Mitch-,” Finch’s voice was cut short when he peered into Alan’s room and saw that he was already up and dressed. “Five minutes.”
Alan nodded and grabbed his vest and hat. It had been a week since he joined the 308 precinct, and he still didn’t sleep well, but not from living arrangements. No, Alan couldn’t sleep because all he could think about was Nick Bradford’s horrible fate. He heard some of the magnet crew walking by his room as curfew began the night before. They were talking about Nick, hoping they would see him again. One of the voices shouted, “You idiots, we’re not going to see Nick again. They never come back. You see the board, you don’t see nobody ever again! So shut up about it.”
It was deathly silent after that. Alan wondered how long it would last: when would he be hauled away to the Board? He already had one strike, on his first day no less, so it was entirely possible he’d be gone within the month. He looked down at his dresser, the top drawer open and half-full of simple t-shirts. His hand rested on a watch lying on top of his shirts. The watch was from home, a simple weekender styled number with leather strap and analog face. It held two very conflicting memories for Alan, memories that liked to rise to the surface every so often; especially when he looked at the cracked glass on the face.
Alan soon realized he had an audience and looked up. Athena was standing in the doorway, and Marshall jumped out from behind her, as if he was the surprise for the day.
“Hey, Alan, you ready for week two?” Marshall asked enthusiastically. Athena rolled her eyes, her arms crossed and her left shoulder leaning up against the doorway.
“Sure,” Alan replied half-heartedly, and he put the watch back in the dresser, trying to push the memories – like the drawer – back out of sight.
“Yes, week two is just week one… again,” Athena joked, this time a small crack in her smirk, revealing more humor than cynicism.
“That sounded almost excited, Athena,” Marshall said with a big grin, and the three of them walked down to the lobby for week two of Alan’s job.
Everything seemed to be marching in rhythm now: same lobby, same people, same bus, same route, same site. It was all a matter of routine, and it gave Alan time to ponder how his week had been.
Another day, another beam. Alan tried to pretend he didn’t notice the rest of the Magnet group giving him the evil eye as they began working. He couldn’t blame them. Nick was gone. He was the type of gone that nobody really understood until they lived it. Nick was an unperson. Nobody mentioned him in roll call. The supervisors acted as if he’d never existed. Save for a few sparse remarks from his coworkers, Nick was little more than a fading memory to workers of 308. Alan had ruminated on this fact the entire week, and had come to a conclusion: never again.
Alan decided at some point in his sleep-elusive nights that he was going to be different. If this was the hand he’d been dealt, then he would be as safe as possible. It was one thing getting yourself in trouble; getting someone else in trouble was another thing entirely.
“Never again,” Alan mouthed to himself as he lifted his hand and played support to one of the other Magnet crew members. He was going to make sure he never got someone a strike again, and he was going to honor Nick by playing by the rules.


Lunchtime arrived, and the bell rang out, echoing in the open area. Alan joined Marshall in line outside the food truck, where the groups were receiving their chicken or bean tacos. At least, Alan assumed it was chicken. Castor was standing next to Athena, his face sulking around a cauldron filled with meat ingredient. Alan could see the dead eyes; he knew that look.
“Chicken or bean?” Athena asked Alan.
“Um… what would you recommend?” Alan asked with a smile.
Athena made a half-smile and looked at the two options. “I think I’d go with chicken.”
“Then chicken it is,” Alan said, his voice slightly more optimistic than it had been all day. His eyes then reluctantly moved over to Castor, who was none-too-happy to see the newbie giving him requests. Castor rolled his eyes and prepared some tacos; then he placed them in a paper box on top of some Spanish rice. Alan smiled at Athena – who smiled back – and Alan took his meal back to the picnic tables adjacent to the concrete foundation of their construction site.
Alan looked down and saw oozing refried beans cascading down his tortillas and onto his rice. He wasn’t entirely surprised Castor would give him the exact opposite order.
“Castor,” Alan clenched his teeth, his emotions pitching toward frustration.
“Didn’t you order chicken?” Marshall asked with a big grin.
“I thought so. It was all a blur,” Alan replied in a sour tone.
“I figured as much. Here,” Marshall put his plate in front of Alan. They sure were chicken-esque tacos. “I actually like bean tacos. Everybody thinks I’m nuts, Athena included.”
“She seems to think that about you in general,” Alan joked.
“Oh, look at that. New guy’s got jokes,” Marshall smiled. “Good to see you getting acclimated. Yeah, Athena thinks I’m crazy in general, but aren’t we all a little crazy?”
Alan thought about it for a minute. Marshall had a point. Everyone seemed to be on the verge of anti-social behavior, save for Marshall. It didn’t take much effort to push Nick over the edge toward homicidal behavior. Castor almost melted Finch’s arm off over a small misunderstanding. Athena had bitten Marshall’s head off at dinner merely because Marshall was trying to be positive with his outlook.
“Yeah, everybody seems crazy here. Everybody except for you, Marshall,” Alan said, and he took a bite of his chicken taco.
“What’re you talking about, kid? I’m the craziest one here,” Marshall fired back, his face lacking the trademark smile Alan had grown accustomed to.
“Everyone here is looking for a reason to start a fight, and you just try to keep us sane. What makes you crazy like us?”
“Because, kid,” Marshall replied, and he looked down apathetically at his meal. He stuck a fork in his rice, and cleared his throat. He locked eyes with Alan, and, suddenly, he appeared far older than Alan had considered before.

“I chose to be here.”

The Department for Mutated Persons – Chapter 6

“Alan!” Athena’s voice echoed inside Alan’s brain, ping-ponging its way between his ear drums. Alan realized he had been staring at a box of cereal turned backwards on its rickety metal shelf. Alan glanced over at Athena who was standing next to him in the grocery store aisle. Alan didn’t really think of it as a grocery store though. There wasn’t produce or meat; really, anything fresh was lacking. Alan looked back at the box of cereal.
“Get out of your head, Alan. We don’t have much time left to get stuff before curfew,” Athena coaxed.
But Alan couldn’t get out of his head because he was still conflicted about what Marshall told him earlier at work. How could someone pick this life for themselves voluntarily? Alan contemplated that some special form of madness was constricting Marshall, pressing him into compulsory labor.
“You get out of my head,” Alan chided, his eyes slowly turning back to look at her.
“I’m not, but don’t make me,” Athena said, an innocent smile.
Alan didn’t wait for her to finish and changed the subject to something that was bothering him.
“When Marshall said we were going to a grocery store, I thought maybe it would have… groceries,” Alan said with a wry grin. Athena gave a short chuckle and looked at their aisle, sparsely filled with mostly boxed cereals and snack foods. The aisles to either side were also compromised of mostly canned foods and other snack foods that lasted a long time.
“Yeah, and they don’t replenish the stock very often. Just don’t lose your toothpaste. They charge an arm and a leg for it.”
“Oh, was I supposed to be brushing my teeth?” Alan joked, and he picked up a box of cereal. Athena punched Alan in the arm playfully. Alan feigned a groan of pain at her fist, cereal shaking around in its box.
“Stop!” Athena laughed, and she put Alan’s box of cereal back onto the shelf. “And you don’t want that. Especially if you won’t be brushing your teeth for the foreseeable future. It’ll rot your teeth, and we can’t ruin that cute smile, can we?”
“Cute smile?” Alan questioned, his smile ear to ear. Athena felt the blood rush to her reddening face. What seemed like an hour was merely a few seconds before Marshall came jogging into the aisle with a basket full of mac and cheese boxes.
“Guys! Mac!” Marshall showed them his haul, his outstretched hands holding up a plastic orange basket filled with an odd assortment of blue boxes with macaroni scrawled in elegant cursive. They rattled as he shook the basket, enthralled with his find. “They never have mac and cheese. This is the best day.”
Alan was still taken aback by Marshall’s revelation early, and now he was aghast that Marshall hardly seemed to care or remember what they had talked about before. Alan didn’t realize he was giving Marshall a weird look until he noticed Marshall giving him the same look back. Athena had been talking in the void of conversation about missing chocolate, specifically dark chocolate in squares, when she noticed the two men were exchanging glances.
“Do I need to give you two a minute?” Athena asked, hands on her hips. Alan and Marshall looked at each other, not sure what the other was thinking. The one who could read minds didn’t much feel like doing it, and she was losing her patience with the deaf and mute routine.
“I can go back to the bus. Nothing looks good to me anyway,” Athena pointed out to the entrance where the bus, and most of the crew, were waiting. Alan nodded. It seemed like the only thing his mind was capable of doing. Athena grabbed a box of cereal, a brain type, and dropped it into Alan’s basket.
“That’s the stupid tax, I’ll see you two boys back at the bus.”
Athena walked out the door, the doorway chiming as she exited. Marshall looked down at the brain distastefully.
“That looks like crap-,” Marshall started, but Alan cut him off mid sentence.
“Are we going to talk about your little reveal earlier? Or are you just going to leave it at, ‘I chose to be here’?”
Marshall cleared his throat. It was a slip up, plain and simple. He’d gotten too comfortable with Alan. Alan had this way of smiling, listening, that made a person want to tell things – secrets – that weren’t meant to be shared.
“Listen, kid, don’t take my words and make them more than what they were,” Marshall said plainly, “I spoke out of turn, and I don’t want you to take what I said as some deep, dark secret to fill up the hours of your mundane workday. Let’s just leave it at that. It’s nothing. It’s not important to you.”
“Fine,” Alan replied, stone-faced but annoyed. “I’ll pretend I never heard it. Let’s get out of here.”
Marshall didn’t believe Alan was going to give up that easily, but he did know that the bus was about to leave without them so it didn’t bother him much to leave it where it was for the time being. The two checked out and got back on the bus, and the computer signaled for everyone to sit down.


 

The bus was full, and people were chatting as the sun sat leisurely right above its final rest for the night. The orange light cast a line across the horizon as the bus made its way back to the 308’s compound.
Athena was telling Alan about her old cat. If the stories were true, her cat was the smelliest cat in all the world. In fact, at one point Athena mistook him for garbage in the middle of the night. She tried to put him in the can, but as soon as she had grabbed the tail, all hell broke loose. Alan had laughed all the way through the riotous tale of the smelliest cat, and so did Athena.
“Do you have stories from back home, Alan?” Athena asked. Alan smiled.
“Yeah, I have stories. I had a childhood,” Alan said jokingly.
“Sometimes we forget,” Athena replied, her eyes looking out at the sun setting. “It can be easier that way.”
“But who would want to forget about your garbage cat?”
Athena smiled brightly, a smile Alan didn’t recognize. Maybe it was the smile Athena wanted to share, or the one she never would. When she realized Alan was looking at her, she stopped immediately.
“Your turn. Tell me a story,” Athena said. Alan turned his body toward her, and looked in her green eyes. He remembered this one time…
“Who’s Elizabeth?” Athena asked quizzically.

Alan wasn’t sure what happened first: the swerve or the collision. Either way the bus that was carrying them ended up colliding with a car and sliding against a railing on the road back to the compound. Sparks flew through the air, and people screamed. But not Alan. He’d witnessed this before.
The bus was careening toward a large oak tree off the side of the road, going at least sixty miles per hour. Alan held his hand out and felt the air brakes screech from the overload. Alan felt the front of the truck: the metal fender, the wheels, the frame. He felt its pulse, the magnetic field. He pressed his mind as far as it could go. The bus groaned to a halt, not three inches from the massive oak.
The crew all seemed to exhale at the same time. Alan didn’t look at his friends, but out the back of the bus at the car they had struck. Alan ran out of the bus wreck and across the street to a small sedan bent up against the railing.
DMP buses were programmed to avoid human vehicles at all costs, even at the expense of the bus and its occupants. But a person could strike a DMP bus if it really wanted to, or if someone had lost control.
Alan looked down at the woman slumped over in the sedan, a bloody air bag ballooned up against her face. Her long brown hair scattered in strands around the bag, mixed with blood and fragments of the steering wheel. The blood in Alan’s veins ran cold, and he could perceive some of it ran out as well. His arm throbbed, bathed in dark blood in the early moonlight.
Elizabeth.

Alan tried to forget. He thought serving his time would dull the memories. But even now she was one the surface, easy enough for Athena to pluck the name out of the air.
“Alan,” it was Athena, standing a few feet away, between Alan and the bus. Alan felt a shiver down his spine, his hairs on his arms standing up. His arm hurt like hell, now that the shock was wearing thin.
“Is everybody okay?” Alan asked.
“More or less.”
Alan didn’t look back, his eyes still set on the woman in the car. She didn’t look much older than twenty, a bottle of alcohol propped up in her dashboard, broken in half.
“Why would she-?” Alan managed to grumble out of his mouth, his throat hoarse and tight. Inside the compound, outside the compound, nothing felt real anymore. Everything was some grand illusion of reality. Everything until this.
“- drink?” Athena finished the sentence. Alan clenched his teeth. Senseless was what it was. Free, not free. Everybody was somehow in prisons of their own. Alan mused that whether he had gone to the 308 or not, he’d still be locked away in some respect. Like the woman who had drank until she couldn’t have the sense to keep on the road, Alan would’ve dulled his memories some other way. Sirens faintly skipped across the hills in the distance, the red and blue lights of the police heading their way. They would soon be back in the compound, left wondering what had really transpired out on the road that evening. The only person who could’ve told them would never speak again.
“Alan,” Athena spoke up, her voice shaky. Alan looked back at Athena. Her eyes were kind; kind and compassionate. “Alan, who’s Elizabeth?”

The Department for Mutated Persons – Chapter 7

Finch had everyone in the lobby with the Healer EMT division in attendance to see to the wounded from the bus crash. Alan watched as the break in his arm snapped back into place and the cuts in his arms sewed shut as if by some invisible magic. The person who was helping him, a cold blonde-haired man in his late thirties, ran his hands across Alan’s arm then held up one to Alan’s face. The cut in Alan’s eyebrow sealed, and the man – with no emotion whatsoever – motioned for Alan to step out of line.
Finch continued to yell out in the lobby, “When you are finished, head straight to your room! Do not stop to talk! It is lights out! We have work tomorrow!”
“Alan,” Athena called out to Alan, as he tried to get through the crowd and into the courtyard.
“Leave me alone,” Alan replied back, seeing Athena also trying to struggle her way to the courtyard.
The crowd seemed to reform as a barrier between Athena and Alan. Athena looked over at Marshall who was handling the flow of people back to the courtyard. She gave him an annoyed look, and he stepped over to her.
“Pardon me. Okay. Hem, sorry about that. Pardon me. And Pardon my reach,” Marshall wiggled between people, then grabbed a few coworkers blocking Athena and lifted them out of the way. “There we go.”
“Thanks, Marshall,” Athena said as she ran past him.


 

It was dark in Alan’s room. The only visibility was from the fluorescent lighting outside in the hall, peaking in through the window. Alan sat with his back up against the dresser in his room. His right hand was holding the broken watch, gliding his thumb back in forth across the cracked glass.
“Alan!” Athena’s muffled voice rang against Alan’s door. “Alan, open the door.”
Alan didn’t answer.
“Alan, please, I’m sorry,” Athena pleaded, her forehead pressed against the door. It wasn’t locked, but she didn’t want to push any farther than she already had. “Come on, just open the door.”
No answer.
Marshall walked up behind Athena and motioned for her to go. He knocked on the door, then opened it without waiting for a response. Alan barely acknowledged Marshall’s existence. He was off elsewhere.
“Hey, kid,” Marshall groaned as he sat down next to Alan against the dresser. He wrapped his arms around his knees, and waited in the silence. Several moments passed. “Your arm looks better.”
Alan stared ahead at his twin bed. He had been perfectly fine doing his time, going through the motions, clocking in and out. Maybe it would’ve helped him forget her.
Elizabeth.
“Kid, you seem out of sorts,” Marshall sighed. “And that has Athena worried, and she’s useless when she’s worried.”
No answer.
Marshall groaned and got up off of the floor.
“Try to get some sleep, kid. We’ve got work tomorrow.”
Marshall stepped toward the doorway.
“Have you ever seen someone die, Marshall? I mean, really see them. Not like a viewing or funeral… but moments right after they passed. Did you see the woman on the road?”
Marshall shook his head, leaning into the doorway. Alan still didn’t make eye contact. He looked down at the watch.
“I don’t understand it,” Alan murmured.
“What’s there to understand? Drank too much, and did something stupid,” Marshall said, pushing his hands into his jeans’ pockets.
“I can relate,” Alan said under his breath. “Not the drinking, per se, but I know stupid.”
“I think we all can,” Marshall replied.
The call for lights out rang through the halls. Marshall stood tall in the doorway.
“This isn’t about that girl in the road tonight,” Marshall said with a grim expression on his face. “What’s with the watch, Alan?”
Alan blinked slowly, and looked down at his broken watch, thumb still sliding across the imperfect surface.
“It’s lights out,” Alan replied gravely.
Marshall walked over and sat down on the bed opposite Alan, folding his arms and awaiting Alan’s response.
“You think I’m scared of them?”
“You’re scared of something,” Alan replied back, his voice filled with bitterness, and he finally looked up at Marshall.
“That’s fair,” Marshall cleared his throat. “I can’t make you tell me if you don’t want to, but eventually you’re going to realize we’re the only friends you have, kid. That life you had before – the people you knew – they’re gone, and they aren’t coming back.”
Alan clenched his teeth. “I know.”
“I used to think I’d get out one of these days. I’d do my time, and they’d just let me go when they lost use for me. But that’s not how this works. I made a choice to be here, and that is irreversible. There’s no going back to the way things were for me. Same as you.”
Marshall’s honesty was sobering; sobering in a mood that was already careening toward depressing. Alan looked back at his broken watch, the last vestige of his time in the real world.
“I remember the day Elizabeth gave me this watch. She had this way of joking about you and you didn’t even care. She said to me, ‘I got you this watch so you’ll stop being late for our dates.’,” Alan laughed. “I’ve never been the punctual type. Anyway, I was 17, and she was trying to whip me into shape. I took the hint. Hardly ever forgot that watch, and maybe I showed up on time more often. I don’t remember. I don’t think she really cared all that much about that.”
Marshall sat down next to Alan.
“Athena was asking me about a funny story early tonight, and it just reminded me of this one time… Elizabeth’s dog – the little guy was handful – and he liked to jump at the door of her old metal shed. She kept him in there on cold nights. Well he would just scratch up the door when I came over… all the time. So one night when I pulled up to her house, I heard Ralph – the dog’s name was Ralph if you could believe it – and he was running toward the shed door. So I just reached out,” Alan held his hand out to pantomime his story, “and the door flies open just in time for Ralph to come rolling out into the yard. Dog rolled for probably a good few seconds – felt like minutes – and we laughed our heads off.”
Marshall and Alan laughed at the story. Alan laughed so hard there were genuine tears in his eyes. He cleared his throat and continued.
“Course, Ralph was fine. He was a resilient booger, tongue wagging and jumping at my car after that. Elizabeth rolled her eyes at me, and put Ralph back up and we went out for the night. I guess Athena reminded me that little memories could still be happy memories if you let them.”
Marshall nodded.
“How’d your watch break?” Marshall asked, his head tipping in its direction. Alan looked at his broken watch face, his smile evaporating.
“Some memories are never happy memories,” Alan murmured and wiped the tears of joy from his eyes.
“How’d the watch break, Alan?”
“Why’d you volunteer for this job?” Alan sneered back at Marshall.
“Touché,” Marshall sighed. Alan could see Marshall was struggling with his thoughts. “I’ll tell you one thing – one thing – if you tell me about the watch.”
Alan groaned and handed the watch to Marshall. Marshall looked at the face, the cracked glass. The hands were forever stuck at one point in time.
2:37. The box showed AM.
“It was late. We were driving home from a party. Raining cats and dogs. Low visibility.”


 

Alan smiled at Elizabeth, a fleeting glance away from the road as their car made its way through the torrential downpour. They were supposed to leave the party hours ago, but it was two in the morning, and they were out in the middle of it. Elizabeth smiled uneasily, a tense feeling rattling throughout her body.
“I know, I know. We should’ve left earlier.”
“I didn’t say anything,” Elizabeth said, a feint veneer of humor laid over her uneasiness.
“Yeah, but you were thinking it,” Alan joked, his eyes staring intensely through the windshield.
The wipers were trying their hardest, but there was too much rain. The road was covered in a layer of water, and any little change of the steering wheel created in a volatile movement one way or the other across the road.
Alan tried to fix the defroster on his dashboard. He hadn’t noticed the lights growing larger up ahead. Elizabeth sucked in a panicked breath, and Alan looked up. The car was spinning out of control, hydroplaning toward them, and there was no time to respond. Alan threw his hands on the dashboard as a snap reaction. Their car wrenched to the left. The other vehicle smashed into the passenger side of their car, and Alan’s head smacked into the steering wheel. Everything went black.
The world was blurry when Alan came to. Alan lifted his head, a nauseous feeling slowly fermenting in his gut. He was on a red stretcher, elevated over the deluge. Flashlights kept dancing over his field of view, as emergency workers passed over him as they worked. Alan couldn’t move his head, so he looked as far to his right as he could. He could see Elizabeth in her own stretcher, as one of the emergency workers zipped her up into a black bag.
Alan couldn’t tell if it was the rain in his face or not, but he could feel warm tears trailing down his face as he looked back up into the blinding flashlights.
“Get him to the hospital, the crew will handle the rest of the cleanup. Other driver is paralyzed. Code the woman: DOA.”


 

“Damn, kid.”
Alan took the watch back and held it to his ear. “Hasn’t worked ever since.”
“You know it’s not your fault she died, right?”
“Oh, I know… ‘it was an accident’, ‘you didn’t mean to’…,” Alan trailed off, his face disgusted. “It happened, and if I had just let that stupid idiot hit me, Elizabeth would be alive and I wouldn’t be lifting metal beams in this chain gang for the rest of my life.”
“Maybe, but you weren’t the one who caused the accident. You just had to react. That’s all we can do: react.”
“Is that why you ended up in here? You reacted?”
“I was worried about my family,” Marshall replied in defense, “It was the best I could do in the situation. If I gave myself up they had no reason to look for them. You do crazy things for your family.”
“That’s funny: my folks sold me out,” Alan said with a wry smile. “I guess I wasn’t lucky enough to have a Marshall in the family.”
The room was silent for a few moments. Marshall wasn’t sure how much more he wanted to share with Alan.
“My siblings are special like us. When the government started rounding us up, we went into hiding, but it didn’t last long. We slipped up, and the Board tracked us down to a remote location. If I didn’t turn myself in, they would’ve found my family. It’s worth it just knowing they’re safe now.”
“I was an only child. I guess if I had siblings, I would understand.”
“You understand, kid. It’s why you wanted to take Elizabeth’s place. It’s love. Maybe not the same kind of love, but still love.”